Although history is often written by the winners John Guy's 'Thomas Becket' shows this is not always the case. Becket was assassinated for defending the rights of the Church against those of the king, a battle which was eventually lost in England when Henry V111 dissolved the Monasteries in 1538 (destroying Becket's shrine in the process). Becket's reputation - which had been far from rosy during his lifetime - was enhanced by his murder and the 'miracles' that followed his death. It was reinforced when Pope Alexander 111 canonised him less than three years after his death. Henry 11, whose irritation with Becket precipitated the murder, did public penance and was scourged at Canterbury. In addition, the king abandoned the Constitutions of Clarendon which had asserted royal authority at the expense of the Church and had forced Becket into exile in 1164 from which he returned shortly before his death.
Becket was born in London of Norman stock about 1120. His family was financially secure but later suffered setbacks which forced Thomas to earn a living as a clerk, eventually finding work in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury Theobald of Bec. Theobald recommended him for the post of Lord Chancellor which involved collecting revenue from the churches, bishoprics and landowners. In 1162 Becket was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury, although he was not an ordained priest. Once appointed Becket moved from extending the king's power to defending and extending that of the Church. The Constitutions of Clarendon were designed to resolve the issue but Becket refused to sign them and fled abroad after being found guilty of contempt of royal authority. When he returned several years later he excommunicated his opponents in the Church. Henry's angry response was interpreted by some of his followers as a death threat to Becket. Four knights traveled to Canterbury, confronted the Archbishop and murdered him.
Canterbury had always seen a large number of pilgrims but after Becket's death the number rose rapidly as stories of 'miracles' attributed to him increased. All trace of Becket, including his bones, were destroyed under Henry V111 in 1538 but his reputation continued to prosper. One of the reasons is the number of biographies which appeared shortly after his death. An early example was written by Edward Grim who was at vespers in the cathedral on the day Becket was killed. He was injured while defending Becket. There were two anonymous biographies the second of which included reports of contemporary criticisms of Becket which the author sought to refute. A second anonymous account was probably written by Roger of Pontigny who stayed with Becket during the Archbishop's exile in Pontigny. Both anonymous authors relied on the accounts by Grim and that of Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence who wrote a book based on oral history, including conversations with Becket's sister.
Benedict of Peterborough wrote three volumes relying on evidence from Becket's close friends including those present in the cathedral on the day he died. Robert of Cricklade composed his volume of the 'life and miracles' of Becket after his bad leg was cured following a visit to Becket's tomb. His work formed the basis of the 'Thomas Saga Erikibyskups' which appeared in Icelandic in the thirteenth century. William fitz Stephen was a 'fellow-Londoner, clerk and friend, sub-deacon in his chapel and a draftsman and advocate in his court' who had 'close and frequent contact with Becket over many years and tells us more than anyone about his career as chancellor'. Although he appears partisan, giving Becket 'the benefit of the doubt and justifying his opinions whether right or wrong' he has an 'eye for colour and fine detail' which is unrivaled. William of Canterbury, who was present in the cathedral when Becket was murdered, wrote six books while John of Salisbury served with Becket in Archbishop Theobald's household and provides excellent insight into what he stood for and tried to achieve. Herbert of Bosham was Becket's constant companion but is considered to have been a negative influence on Becket especially in wanting to excommunicate the Archbishop's clerical enemies. According to Guy, 'much of his writing, in particular his description of Becket's first year as archbishop, is commendably honest'.
By way of contrast Henry 11 was not so well treated by historians. His reign was a reminder of the Norman origins of the English monarchy and he spent most of his early years in France fighting dynastic and territorial battles with Louis V11. He held property in several countries and sought to retain control through arranged marriages and the smack of firm government. The latter was a reaction to the civil war between Henry's mother Matilda and her cousin Stephen following the latter's accession to the throne on the death of Henry 1. Once crowned Henry weakened the power and influence of the traditional aristocracy while retaining close contact with the Church which was an essential part of the royal administration.
The battle between secular authorities and the Papacy over the extent of the power each was entitled to had been ongoing for over three hundred years since the clash between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory V11 had resulted in a victory for the Papal authorities, although it was a diplomatic victory for Henry.. It would continue into the twentieth century with conflicts leading to the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution and anti-clericalism throughout Europe. The relationship between Archbishop Becket and the King was political. Unfortunately, while Becket understood his limitations as chancellor, as archbishop he did not. As chancellor his role was not to upset the king, as archbishop his role was not to weaken the Church. Whereas Becket considered his oath to the Church was of higher value than that to the king it was not a view shared by the king. Ultimately, it cost Becket his life. Easy to read and well worth the effort. Five stars.
on 26 July 2012
The beginning of the book made me impatient. I had been looking forward to learning the facts about Becket but all I got at the start was a great deal about sources. Then a lot of what was set out about Becket's childhood and youth was conjecture - informed conjecture, of course, but not confirmed fact. Not Mr. Guy's fault but a drawback when aiming to give us the genuine lowdown on something of a 900 year old mystery.
I had similar misgivings about the central section of the book too. There is an extended section about Stephen and Matilda. There is a very great deal about the character and motivation of Henry II and his wars with France - all good, documented stuff and very interesting but NOT essentially about Becket!
I felt the book really got going in the latter stages as the story began to build up towards Becket's assassination - but that was maybe 1/4 - 2/3 of the volume.
It is an interesting book if the reader doesn't take too literally that it is a biography of Becket. Of course, background,descriptions of the historical context and portrayals of the other major players are all essential, but my own feeling is that the balance was not quite right.
The larger interest arises from the book's portrayal of the period, the monarchs, and the court, with a large chunk about the Chancellor/Archbishop. If it is bought and approached on that basis it is a good read.
on 6 May 2012
John Guy has already made his reputation for his biographies from the Tudor period. In this masterful work he takes us back to the 12th century. The book reads like a thriller. Guy does not shirk the weaknesses of both Becket and Henry II. It is a 'must read' book for anyone who is interested in one of the most famous incidents in English history.
on 2 June 2012
John Guy is an established biographer of the Tudor period, although I haven't read any of his previous works. Having just finished Thomas Becket, though, I will be looking out for his other works - he has created what seems to be a masterful account of Becket's life.
I wasn't quite sure whether to expect a novelistic account of Becket's life, or a 'proper' historical biography. Becket is clearly the latter - rather than being a gripping, involving read it is somewhat more dry and dispassionate. And this is how it should be in my opinion - impeccably researched, lucidly written and clearly laid out, I'd venture to say that this might become the definitive biography of Becket.
on 14 October 2013
Thomas Becket is John Guy's thrilling, revisionist biography of one the most controversial yet revered figures in British history - "the man who sought to reform a nation, dared to defy his king, and laid down his life to defend his sacred honour."
The basics of Becket's life story are quite well-known. Born in 1120 into a lower middle class Norman family, Becket eventually rose, despite poor health and apparently rather unremarkable abilities, to become the second most powerful man in the country, second only to Henry II himself. At the height of his power Becket led seven hundred knights into battle, brokered peace between nations, influenced kings and held the ear of the Pope. Becket's fall though proved to be just as dramatic as his rise. Then Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket was murdered in his own cathedral in 1170 by those loyal to King Henry II for daring to side with the Pope.
Thomas Becket is no simple retelling of these events though. With this book John Guy brings the colossal figure of Becket vividly to life and in doing so illuminates aspects of his character seldom seen in previous biographies. Seeking to separate facts from centuries of romanticising and mythmaking, Guy sheds new light on the relationship between Becket and Henry II and casts doubt on the prevailing belief that the two men were once great friends [the class barrier and Henry's highhandedness making true friendship unlikely].
Guy also examines in commendable detail Becket's rather perplexingly dramatic transformation from fearsome military man and effectual bureaucrat into a pious and devoted man of the Church. Guy offers convincing evidence that this transformation was really brought about by a combination of pride and arrogance rather than by a true religious epiphany. While Becket clearly was committed to the cause of the Church, it is likely that he was influenced as much by selfish reasons as by piety. The evidence of Becket's capriciousness and the strength of his temper are certainly at odds with the saintly image of Becket that has been fostered over the centuries. Thomas Becket therefore provides a rounded picture of the man behind the myth and so explains how such contradictory opinions of Becket came to coexist.
John Guy is certainly a meticulous and inventive researcher. During the compiling of material for Thomas Becket, Guy discovered the list of books that made up Becket's library during his time in exile and through studying these polemic titles, he was able to gain new insight into Becket's ambition and state of mind during this period. Perhaps even more impressively, Guy also discovered a few of Becket's personal copies of volumes from this library, one of which included marginalia written by the great man himself. It is the unique insights of this kind as well as Guy's detailed analysis and engaging writing style which really make Thomas Becket a standout biography and authoritative historic volume.
As John Guy comments, the story of Thomas Becket is the story of an enigma, as well as of one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. Through detailed research and by drawing on a vast range of contemporary records and person accounts [the section detailing the earliest biographers of Becket is particularly interesting and is useful for contextualising and evaluating the information that follows] in Thomas Becket Guy has produced a detailed, vivid and exhilarating account of the life of a remarkable man, the dramatic times in which he lived and the pivotal role that he played in British history.
on 6 September 2013
My opinion may be biased as I look at Saint Thomas Becket as the very example of how a man vain and bound to earthy 'pleasures' may turn to God and change, and thus always found his evolution from student in Paris (here well described for what it could be) to up-start chancellor to archbishop compelling. John Guy successfully illustrated how Becket likely have found himself after long years of unhappy service as chancellor, during which he was secretly pious, and turned into the man who - as John guy quotes the eyewitnesses Edward Grim and John of Salisbury, submitted himself to God's grace with open arms as he was cut down by the four knights. It's a wonderful spiritual journey, that people who turn to religious or question religion may find even more wonderful and somewhat inspirational. It's layered in so many ways, illustrating how Becket found himself in exile, for example how he was the showman at the start (when he travels to France to negotiate the marriage of Prince Henry) and at the end how he no longer felt the need to share that he wore hairshirt to prove himself to others. Often in his career he tried to please others and later he tried too hard to reason his actions and prove his worth, which is again one more reason why any reader can connect to his struggle, since anyone in the position similar where they feel the need to act like this would realise that it only results in the opposite of what they wanted. I found the illustration of how Becket transformed beautifully written, especially when it culminates in the murder and the person described could not be more different from the clerk who joined Archbishop Theobald's service.
I wouldn't call John Guy the best historian who writes, it is clear from his book that he got carried away. At the end of each chapter he has a one liner always referring to the climax which at the start was somewhat bothering. But then again, everyone knows what the climax is, the murder in the cathedral, and in a nutshell why it happened, so it's not like Guy gave anything away early. His being carried away is obvious from when he crosses the line and states what Becket and his contemporaries would have thought, or felt. Guy's lucky from the point of having plenty of resources so the recreation of Becket's character evolution is relatively easy, and it's understandable that he makes this mistake as result. Plus it's obvious he admires his subject, and for someone like me who admires the subject just as well, he only makes Becket more accessible. Something I exceptionally welcomed in this book was the detailing of the sources, in not only quoting the witness accounts and letters - which was not too much, contrary to other historians, but still it was enough to support the story - Guy also quotes Bible references, details certain sermons and arguments enough for the reader to understand the underlying meanings and reasons why Becket would chose to argue about this and preach about that... Besides this, or despite, the book succeeds in describing the man himself, and not the saint. Guy goes at great length to ensure Becket's flaws are equally detailed and he takes care to list all criticism, negative aspect of Becket's actions. He doesn't deny that Becket was way too impulsive, stubborn or that most of his struggle was intervened with his personal struggle against Henry.
It's obvious from Guy's narrative that Becket was less a friend and more the dutiful 'employee' who was way too resourceful to Henry, accepting whatever was thrown at him and secretly searching for himself, or staying true to himself as much as he could. He may have left England when he shouldn't have but at the end, he grew and matured to be brave enough to be the good shepherd that dies for his sheep. I actually wish his last sermon would be quoted, it's showcasing amazing intellect and calmness, Becket talks about martyrdom and at the end he tells his congregation (on Christmas day, 4 days before the murder) that he wished to raise awareness of the martyrs as he believes this was the last time he spoke to them, and that he believes they soon will have one more martyr, probably not the last to die for Mother Church (not his exact words, but almost.) I do recall from the book that Guy quotes Becket saying upon his return that he returns to England to die. He knew there was no other way out of their quarrel and also that - as it is with martyrs - his blood shed will provide the shock and the reason needed to tame Henry II. Some call it egoism, pride or even vanity that Becket wanted death - but it's almost a pre-requirement of martyrs to show no fear of their death, and Thomas certainly showed none, standing still through the first three sword attacks. Then he fell on his knees and commended himself to God, raising hands as if in prayer (as when priests offer the Peace with open hands) as his last movement before they literally sliced his head open. After St Augustine's definition, the cause defines the martyr not the blood shed, and that he, the martyr is ready to give his life for the cause when need comes.
Becket's readiness for martyrdom is in striking contrast with the person who fought with the king for a new mantle, when the king wanted to him to give his mantle as donation to the poor man on the side of the road, Becket was so unwilling that they almost fell off their horses fighting and dragging his mantle. He only gave up because it was the king who wanted him to do it. John Guy shows however, interpreting the many hints that Becket's change wasn't a damascene turn, more like a shed off of a mask. He was never one to indulge like Henry II, he had no mistresses. He indulged in luxurious food but as chancellor he had to host people in the name of the king who himself didn't care about this royal obligation. The exact same applies for luxurious clothes or gifts to people. Guy quotes the story of the man who saw Becket kneeling on the floor of a church alone and deep in prayer, and later recognised him when visiting his house for business.
He was always the kind of man who would have preferred the simple living, in Guy's interpretation. It's a fresh view on Becket and makes sense, though less romantic than the damascene turn version of the worldly sinner chancellor to the soldier of Christ who constantly scourges himself in penance for his earlier sins. However I felt it gives him more complexity, his true personality hidden probably even from himself, fighting his own ego and ambition. Vanity is one of the greatest sins and all earthy pleasures and doings can be translated to being vanity (Ecclesiastes 1) so it seems Thomas' vanity won the fight against his pietism for a time, raising high. That's why it feels in this biography that he only found himself once he became 'free' from chancellorship, through the decision to resign after his consecration despite the king's plans. Now anyone reading this, who found themselves in faith and Christ as adult, have been 'saved' or however they call it - I don't use this term - would clearly understand the difference before and after in how it 'feels' and can relate. We Christians (or I'd say, I and those who I actively discuss faith with) strongly believe that there is no accidental happening - there's reason behind the course we end up taking, and many things we see no reason why we encounter (especially our failings) will provide for us in the future, experience in a way it'll become necessary, even if we won't have the 'aha moment' to realise. Translating this to Becket, he had to be the 'sinner' the worldly chancellor living luxuriously, and experience that life and the contrast of living it while also living so heavily under the king's influence versus living poorly, eating bread and drinking muddy water (some sources say Becket thought this a fitting penance at Pontigny and had a try at it until he became bedridden sick and had to be convinced to follow a more balanced less infectious diet.) In a way, he had to sin to to repent it, and thus become who he was, it was his road to the see of Canterbury and through it, he was the right and chosen person to defy the king. He had to be good as chancellor to gain the position of Archbishop, and he had to be the secretly devoted christian to become the kind of archbishop he was... He also had to give in to his ambitions first, though I'd dispute he ever gave that up, he fought not only out of belief and piety but also out of his vanity, pride and stubbornness. He told to one of his clerks that there is no accident in what was happening to him, only the clerk doesn't understand the ways of God. Becket was an outstandingly intelligent man seeing this all through, and John Guy reveals these depths through his sources and through his interpretation, very cleverly.
The other thing I wish this book had more (besides his sermons) is his letters - there's a great one available online (google "without effort" or "without real effort".) It's another proof of his intellectualism and devotion, as well as the change that he went through in his exile and gives a glimpse of how he looked upon his exile, he took it as the 'mandatory effort to bear' to be able to win his salvation and be absolved... "Remember how the crown was attained by those whose sufferings gave new radiance to their faith. The whole company of saints bear witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown." (actual quote)
John Guy's biography of Saint Thomas clearly illustrates why he deserved to become a saint - in my opinion at least - in describing his journey and how despite his flaws at the end as that good shepherd, and through the easy novel-like narrative made the extraordinary story of Becket enjoyable and accessible. A pure success, highly recommended, to anyone who wishes to know more about the man that became Saint Thomas of Canterbury.
on 27 December 2012
"Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" Actually, this quote is almost certainly apocryphal, but it's quite fun to say.
John Guy presents a clearly written and engaging portrait of Thomas Becket, a man who rose from humble (if not quite impoverished) circumstances to hold the position of Chancellor and, latterly, that of Archbishop of Canterbury. Posthumously, of course, his death was considered a martyr's death and it was claimed his remains cured blindness and healed the lame.
Guy's biography sees the reader through Becket's life and his relationship with power in England, encompassing his turbulent friendship with Henry II. Initially, Henry had been Becket's sponsor, elevating him to such lofty positions. This, however, he would never let Becket forget and saw his refusal to bend to his will as an act of personal betrayal and (by definition) treasonous.
Guy's account is interesting and recommended. I have to admit I can't really place the work in the canon of historical writing of this period as my knowledge of this time is somewhat limited. However, Guy does present a compelling picture of the politics of the time. I was intrigued by the manoeuvring of the principal players. Becket's rise took in, firstly, a high secular office then the highest Church office in England. I have to confess this confused me a little. I'm sure Becket was observant (as were - where it suited - the nobility; though it is worth remembering that, as a French Norman, Henry's ancestor's had converted to Christianity for purely practical political reasons) but it seems an odd path to tread to my eyes. This is presumably because kings would have wished to see a relatively pliant leader in the Church.
Becket appears to have taken his duties seriously and, indeed, was considered a bulwark against the tyranny of kings. That said, much of his resistance seemed to centre around protecting the property privileges of the Roman Catholic church. Resist he did, though, and this is how we remember St Thomas (though clearly this altered post-Henry VIII).
An interesting and accessible survey of the time. Recommended.
The book is called 'Thomas Becket', but it is as much about Henry II as Thomas; these are two giant characters whose histories are so entwined, any book about one has, of necessity, to be about both.
John Guy has done a huge amount of quality, original research for this book which attempts to find the flesh and blood Becket under the layers of myth and history and does a tremendous job at brining these long dead characters alive. There is some necessary hedging, an attempt to read things into the characters of both Becket and Henry that are mere speculation - but forgivably so, and they are always noted as opinion and not fact.
The writing is superb; John Guy paints the man and his times, his environment and historical context, in bright and glowing colours. Becket's extraordinarily rapid rise through the ranks, his friendship with Henry and subsequent fall, are portrayed so vividly, and in such a calm, easy-to-read, novelistic style, the story really does come alive. This a very easy and entertaining, as well as informative, read and very highly recommended indeed.
on 22 November 2014
I have a copy
on 6 November 2013
Entertaining read, if somewhat scholarly. He has pored through a huge amount of historical first hand evidence and done justice to one of history's most enduring and complex characters. We understand the historical context; the pope's position, Henry's character and the key roles of historical players in the drama. We may not get to understand Becket's personality too much more - 9 centuries will make the picture somewhat oblique however it is painted, but we do get to understand what the drama was and how it unfolded with first hand sources justifying the narrative. That is no mean feat of scholarship.